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Column: Georgia’s schools ignore parental consent on student mental health

Jane Robbins is a Harvard educated attorney and a senior fellow with the APP Foundation, based out of Georgia. Robbins has modeled federal and state legislation designed to restore the constitutional autonomy of states and parents in education policy, and to protect the rights of religious freedom and conscience. This opinion piece reflects the views of the author and not those of AllOnGeorgia. 

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The fallout from the recent shooting in a Florida public school extends beyond adolescent outrage over the Second Amendment. It also includes a push for more “mental health” evaluations in schools. But this understandable impulse to identify all troubled kids is not only impractical and impossible, but also threatens the rights of the larger student population and their parents.

The Georgia Legislature just passed a bill that heads in that direction. The bill, HB 740, requires that before a preK-3 student may be suspended or expelled for over four days, the school must put him through one of several disciplinary schemes that fall under the umbrella term Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports. These include Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and Response to Intervention (RTI).

As explained by the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE), “PBIS schools apply a multi-tiered approach to prevention, using disciplinary data and principles of behavior analysis to develop school-wide, targeted and individualized interventions and supports to improve school climate for all students.”

Translated into English, PBIS et al. is a system of behavioral modification and even mental-health evaluation to be conducted at school. The system is implemented in tiers: a broad bottom tier to cover all students, with upper tiers of behavioral modification to be practiced on students who have demonstrated undefined “at risk” behaviors.

The goal of HB 740 is to use such systems to uncover the underlying cause of a child’s misbehavior before “exclusionary discipline” is imposed (the push to reduce exclusionary discipline comes, unconstitutionally, from the federal government).

Georgia law already “encourages” public schools to implement systems such as PBIS and RTI, and GaDOE is gung-ho about doing so. The new legislation merely requires that they be used on young children before suspension or expulsion.

Pediatrician Dr. Karen Effrem has explained well the disturbing features of these systems. PBIS, for example, has been used for over 20 years on children with special education needs under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), but the most recent fed-ed bill (ESSA) expands the implementation schoolwide – on every child, regardless of whether he demonstrates any need for it (GaDOE also pushes universal implementation).

“This means,” Effrem writes, “that every single child in a school that takes this federal grant money under ESSA is a target for universal subjective behavioral screening, [perhaps] labeling with a behavior disorder — the criteria for which experts do not agree — and psychological modification using admittedly experimental means.”

As Effrem warns, although screeners may include trained, licensed counselors – the only school personnel who should ever be involved in this extremely sensitive area – more likely they will be already overworked teachers who have received superficial training. The chances of children being wrongly labeled and perhaps recommended for dangerous behavior-altering drugs, and that all this information will be memorialized, forever, in the student longitudinal data system, are not insubstantial.

Effrem points out a further problem that was implicated in the new Georgia bill. “Most of this [evaluation and behavior-modification] process occurs before a formal special education evaluation that requires parental consent occurs.” So across Georgia, children are being subjected to what may be mental-health evaluations without parental consent.

It was clear at the outset of testimony on HB 740 that reversing this dangerous trend toward PBIS and other screening systems was a lost cause. So at the Senate Education and Youth Committee hearing on the bill, an amendment was suggested to at least require parental consent before such evaluations are performed. An official from GaDOE assured the committee that federal law already requires such consent, so the bill need not specify it.

But the problem with this argument is twofold: first, federal law requires consent when a formal IDEA evaluation is done, but it’s much less clear about whether all use of PBIS requires parental consent; and second, federal law (even if the feds enforce it, which doesn’t always happen) can change. So it’s better policy to specify in our Georgia Code what consent is required without tying it to hazy, changeable federal law. The committee members seemed to agree and requested an amendment to that effect.

But by the next committee meeting, that’s not what they got. This was the proposed amendment (presumably drafted by GaDOE): “The school or program shall comply with all federal laws and requirements regarding obtaining parental consent during any advanced tier within the system of supports prior to certain screenings or evaluations.”

In addition to being meaningless (Georgia must comply with federal law regardless of what state statute says), the amendment failed to address any of the concerns expressed at the hearing. It still tied Georgia policy to federal law that is at best unclear, and that can change at any time. It also applied only to “advanced” tiers of support (undefined) and only to “certain” screenings or evaluations (also undefined). Despite these shortcomings, the committee and later the full Senate passed the bill (already passed by the House), and assuming the Governor’s signature, it will become law.

What to make of all this? The only reasonable conclusion is that the Georgia education establishment wants as much flexibility as possible to screen and evaluate children’s mental and behavioral health, without potential interference from their parents. Perhaps this policy is meant to identify potentially violent students in light of the Florida shooting. But because of the potentially life-altering consequences for innocent children, it should never be done without informed parental consent.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Caleb Knight

    April 12, 2018 at 4:27 pm

    There is so much wrong with this article I don’t know what to even say!!! PBIS is not at all what you described it as being AT ALL!!! It is just restructuring how we speak to kids and putting acknowledgments into place to have a positive environment in the school. I have no clue where you got any of this information but it is all WRONG!

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